Twelve Cuban migrants made landfall in Key West on Sept. 8, 2021. They were taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol.

Twelve Cuban migrants made landfall in Key West on Sept. 8, 2021. They were taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol. (US Border Patrol/TNS)

MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — A planned visit this week by Cuban Border Guard officials to U.S. Coast Guard headquarters in Washington has been canceled after complaints from Republican members of Congress.

However, the Cuban delegation, which arrived Wednesday, will still be allowed to tour port facilities in North Carolina due to concerns that suspending the entire visit could trigger retaliation from Cuban authorities, congressional sources told the Miami Herald.

Initially, officials from Cuba’s Interior, Transportation and Foreign Relations ministries were expected to meet with Coast Guard officials at the agency’s headquarters and tour U.S. port facilities in Wilmington, North Carolina, as part of the United States’ International Port Security Program, the State Department said.

But following calls from members of Congress to cancel the entire event, Department of Homeland Security officials replied that the U.S. Coast Guard feared that doing so could make the island authorities less willing to accept repatriated migrants interdicted at sea, according to congressional staffers who asked to remain anonymous to discuss information they were not authorized to comment on publicly.

Migration from Cuba across the Florida Straits increased dramatically last year, as did the number of Cubans coming through the U.S.-Mexico border, as increased government repression and an economic crisis pushed young people to flee the island.

The agenda for the two-day visit includes meetings with the Coast Guard, U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a tour of the port complex in Wilmington and a ship ride.

Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio first called attention to the visit Friday in a letter urging President Joe Biden to cancel it immediately due to concerns that Cuban intelligence officials might be included in the delegation and could gain access to sensitive national security installations.

On Sunday, the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, Mark Green, R-Tenn., and the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, R-Texas, sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas expressing similar concerns about “the U.S. national security implications of allowing government officials with a known adversarial foreign intelligence service to access sensitive U.S. Federal Government facilities.”

The letter, also signed by Republican U.S. Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar and Carlos Gimenez of Miami, highlights that “not only is Cuba still a U.S. designated State Sponsor of Terrorism along with North Korea, Iran, and Syria, but Cuba remains a chief counterintelligence threat.”

The State Department, which planned the trip along with Homeland Security and the Coast Guard and notified Congress of the visit, has not disclosed to Congress the identity of the Cuban officials attending, congressional sources said.

“We don’t have anything to offer you on the list of the delegation and would refer you to the Cuban government,” a State Department spokesperson told the Miami Herald.

The Cuban Border Guard is part of Cuba’s Ministry of Interior, which is also in charge of intelligence agencies and is under U.S. sanctions because of its involvement in human-rights violations of government critics.

The Cuban Coast Guard has recently been under a barrage of criticism by Cuban exiles and Cuban-American politicians after survivors of a collision at sea said a Cuban Coast Guard vessel rammed their boat when they were trying to leave Cuba in the hope of reaching Florida, an event recalled by Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, the ranking member in the Foreign Relations Committee, in a tweet criticizing the visit.

“It’s outrageous the administration would collaborate with the #Cuban coast guard, who in October sank & killed at least five people fleeing the Cuban regime, including a child,” the tweet said. “Why is POTUS normalizing a State Sponsor of Terrorism sanctioned for human rights violations?”

In his letter to Biden, Rubio said the invitation “to Cuban intelligence operatives into sensitive national security facilities in order to share with them our nation’s coastal and maritime security protocols is an egregious dereliction of duty.”

But a visit by Cuban Interior Ministry officials under the umbrella of cooperation with the U.S. Coast Guard has happened before, even under former President Donald Trump.

According to a State Department spokesperson, “this coordination is not new, nor does it represent a change in U.S. policy. The U.S. Coast Guard and Cuban Border Guard have had a collaborative relationship for decades that focuses first and foremost on maritime safety. The most recent visit of a Cuban delegation as part of the International Port Security Program took place in 2019.”

According to the U.S. Coast Guard website, the program “seeks to reduce risk to U.S. maritime interests, including U.S. ports and ships, and to facilitate secure maritime trade globally.” The program involves “reciprocal port visits, the discussion and sharing of port security best practices and the development of mutual interests in securing ships coming to the United States.”

The visit by Cuban officials was meant to reciprocate a visit to Cuba by U.S. Coast Guard officials in January this year, Homeland Security told members of Congress.

The inclusion of Cuba in the program began during the Obama era and it was negotiated by then-Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security Mayorkas, who now leads the agency, according to a dissertation written by Derek Cromwell, who was the Coast Guard liaison based in the U.S. Embassy in Havana between 2014-18. At the time, the Obama administration was readying to authorize cruise travel to the island, which would increase maritime traffic between the two countries.

Other Interior MInistry officials have traveled to the U.S. during the Obama and Trump administrations.

A Cuban delegation of port security experts toured port facilities in Jacksonville, Tampa, and Mobile in early 2016. In April that year, Cromwell escorted four Interior Ministry officials, including a Revolutionary National Police colonel, on a tour of the Pentagon’s counter-drug center at the U.S. Navy base in Key West, the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald reported at the time.

According to Cromwell, Cuban Border Guard officials were first hosted by the U.S. Coast Guard in early January 2015 in Key West. In March 2018, a 10-member Cuban delegation, including diplomats and officials from the Cuban Border Guard, Civil Defense, and public health and tourism ministries, observed a U.S. Coast Coast search-and-rescue operation in Key West.

©2023 Miami Herald.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now